I recently got involved in a tiff with a person over what would seem to be a rather simple question, "To what extent to rural votes still dominate over urban ones in Japan’s Diet?" Having some idea of the answer to the question would give one insight into some rather pressing current problems in Japan, in particular the Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s non-decision on participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a problem he seemed to have licked until the White House uploaded to its website a readout of the Noda-Obama meeting that had the prime minister putting all goods and services on the table. Period. A formulation that guaranteed the prime minister would face a buzz saw when he returned from Hawaii.
Anyway, I tried to answer the way the newspapers do, or at least did on October 27: by publicizing the degree of inequality in voting strengths between the smallest electoral districts and the largest ones – the results of which I blogged about last week. Of particular significance was the fact that based on the 2010 census data, 97 of the nation's 300 electoral districts had populations greater than 1.99 times the size of the nation’s least populous district – meaning that the voters in close to a third of the nation’s districts were disenfranchised to a level in excess of the constitutionally acceptable limits as described in a Supreme Court ruling of March of this year.
No, no, my interlocutor persisted, how much more representation do rural voters have in the Diet than urban voters?
Now that is a very interesting question…and one that is very difficult to pry out of the data without colliding with bias. Is a rural voter a farmer, fisherman or lumberman? Someone who works in the processing of the materials provided by the primary producers? Someone who lives in a prefecture where half the workforce is in primary industries? A third of the workforce? A fourth? Is it someone who lives in a city surrounded on all sides by a vast area of dark, foreboding mountains? Is it someone living in a district stretching like a ribbon, with one tail in city and the other in pure farmland, with an increasing/decreasing level of urbanization along its length? Is it someone working as a clerk in a branch of JA Bank?
Furthermore, in most countries, there are boundaries, city limits where one can say, "OK, now I am in X City." However, in the great Heisei Consolidation (J) so many cities swallowed up previously independent rural communities that the statement "I am in the city now" became almost meaningless in terms of the density of population on the ground in a particular locale.
One can make certain gross guesses, of course. One can guess that the 97 districts with populations in excess of double the population of the smallest district are probably "urban" under a general understanding of the term. One can also guess that the 100 smallest districts by population are probably "rural" by the self-same general understanding. However, for the 103 districts in between, where does one draw the line between rural and suburban, rural and mostly rural or mostly urban but with a large rural backyard?
The meaning of “urban” and “rural” is further muddied by land use laws which seek to protect farmland within what are ostensibly urban areas. This author lives in one of the 23 central wards of Tokyo, the hard urban core of the greatest urban conglomeration on earth. However, in front of the building where I live there is farmland, whose produce I can buy from a small streetside stand open three days a week. A three minute bicycle ride away is an apple orchard, where one can pick one’s own apples in the fall. A two minute bicycle ride away is a grape arbor, where, if one can remember the day, one can harvest grapes on the vine for one's table.
As one heads out on one of the great arterial train lines or freeways, the size and number of these plots multiplies – all while one is ostensibly still in the city, as is manifested by the intense knots of urbanization around train stations, themselves surrounded by kilometers of low-level housing.
An aside, but this jumble of urban development, suburban sprawl and farmland is one of the main reasons the prime minister’s pledge to protect Japan’s "beautiful agriculture" (utsukushiki nogyo) from destruction by the TPP is so fatuous. Japanese agriculture is messy, indeed unsightly most of the time. One is hard-pressed to find a pretty valley or vista, as fields are cheek-and-jowl with so much suburban and semi-urban clutter. "Utsukushiki" for the most part it ain’t. We all know that the PM is a smoker…but has anyone checked to see what it is he is smoking?
This blending of urban and rural, or bleeding into of the rural into the urban, even in the capital, makes the definition of urban vs. rural voters so difficult to disentangle. Sure, this author lives in an urban area and thus an urban voting district. However, just down the street aways, in a sizable building, are the offices of JA Zenchu, the Central Union of Agriculture Cooperatives, for the ward. There are farmers in my neighborhood – mostly old, retired folks but nevertheless farmers, with produce for sale (though the corn crop this year failed, for some reason).
So how much pull do rural voters have over urban voters? Gosh, that would be an interesting question. However, one would have to make all kinds of arbitrary decisions, with significant consequences as to one's final result.
Suffice it to say that voters from districts where inefficient primary industries and inefficient secondary industries dominate have an inordinate amount of influence on the nation's decisions, due to their overrepresentation in the Diet, as compared to consumers and producers of the nation's surplus, who are crowded into districts with relatively poor levels of representation.
Trying to pin a number on the level of this misrepresentation, however, is a matter of individual judgment.
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